I don’t know for sure what got me thinking about Coach Rodness. Maybe it's just because it’s April and as you have heard, in spring every young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love — love of baseball. Well, that’s true of old men, too. At least for those of us who played the game with a feverish passion many years ago and can’t quite get it out of our hearts.
But I don’t think it was any of that.
Today I told my youngest son something that sparked a synaptic link to a memory from my self-glorified past.
My son has recently had a spat with his wife. It has gone on for several days and is making both of them miserable. Having “been there, done that” (one of the greatest colloquial phrases ever adopted into American lexicon) I have grown weary of it and I told him, simply, “You love her and so do we. Make your peace with her.” It was just that simple. Dad had spoken. “Fix it,” I told him.
And suddenly I realized where I had heard that calm, persuasive voice before.
Bob Rodness was a physical education and baseball coach at Highlands High School in the Sacramento suburb of North Highlands in the late nineteen-sixties. I was a skinny semi-nerd who could hit a little, couldn’t run worth a damn, but played baseball like nothing else in the world mattered because in my world at that time it was true.
One day in P.E. class we were playing softball. Keep in mind this was the spring of 1968, right around the time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was a time fraught with racial tension and fears that we Northern California teenagers of the moment had trouble assimilating into the limited observations and half-baked philosophies of our very young lives. From our shortsighted perspectives it seemed the world was divided into colors and you took your side, you had no choice. We knew it wasn’t as simple as that, of course, and that segregation and bigotry were wrong by definition but we were too young and inexperienced to make sense of such worldly confusions as racism, assassination and, not coincidentally, the war in Vietnam.
We who grew up in the sixties need to look upon those events as the vortex to the psychological confusions that haunt us even now.
Back to the softball game…
I was pitching, a black kid I didn’t know was the batter. For no reason whatever he began taunting me in a mean, angry way. I don’t pretend to understand the world through his eyes, not then or now, but he was mad. He yelled a lot, I said something back and the next thing I knew he was on top of me, pummeling me for no reason at all other than the fact that I was on the opposing team and I was white and skinny.
Imagine something like that happening today. We would have both been hauled into the office, for starters. Police would have been called. No doubt both of us would have been suspended or expelled. It’s entirely possible that felony charges would be filed against one or both of us and dueling lawsuits would be launched. We’d be front page news and a community would divide and take sides.
Lives could have been ruined for a minor scuffle between a couple of dumb kids.
What actually happened forty years ago was Bob Rodness. He simply yelled at us, “Knock it off, you guys!”
And we did.
That kid went back behind the plate, I threw the ball and he hit it. I don’t remember where or how well he hit it. The story was long over by then. The game continued, the period ended, we went on to our next class and forgot about it.
Admittedly, that was a different time in a naive world entirely alien to us now. But some things stick in our psyches forever.
“Knock it off, you guys.”
That’s essentially what I told my son today: “This fight with your wife has gone on long enough. It’s stupid.” The end.
But here’s the Bob Rodness story I really want to tell you, not because it made any lasting moral impression on me. Though, it might have, I just don’t know yet. I just love the memory of this:
Some fifteen years or so after graduating from high school I was a volunteer tending the exit gate at a music venue during the world-famous Sacramento Jazz Jubilee. In those days volunteers were allowed, indeed encouraged, to drink and make merry as they performed their duties. I took the encouragement to heart.
Two beautiful women in their twenties approached the exit gate requesting entrance to the party. I informed them nicely that they would have to wait in line at the actual entrance gate. But gosh they were pretty, and I was nicely toasted. We got to chatting and as we did an older couple approached my gate. With one arm around each of the beautiful young ladies, a large beer in one hand and cigarette dangling from my mouth, I heard the girls exclaim in unison, “HI, DADDY!”
It was Coach Rodness and his wife. And even though it had been fifteen years or more since we had seen each other he recognized me.
He sized things up quicker than I did, threw his head back and laughed the unstained laugh of the pure and pious as I whipped my arms away from his daughters, dumped my beer in the nearby trash can and stepped on my cigarette.
I expected him to order me to run laps but he just kept laughing until tears were streaming down his face.
And yes, I let the entire family enter through the exit.
© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved